Source: The Telegraph (UK)
May 26th, 2011
By Julian Astle*
The political debate in this country can be depressingly constrained; its boundaries drawn and policed by “common sense” populism on one side and political correctness on the other. Yet there are some problems where the search for a solution, were we to follow the evidence, would almost certainly lead us beyond the thin strip of permitted opinion on which our politics takes place. One such problem is drugs.
In the world of Westminster politics, the prohibition on drugs extends to talking about them as well as taking them. For any politician with any ambition, the issue is simply out of bounds. When the Lib Dem conference voted, in 1994, to establish a Royal Commission to look at the case for decriminalising cannabis, Paddy Ashdown was so exasperated by his party’s tendency to political self-harm that he kicked over his chair and stormed off the conference stage. The following morning’s papers showed he hadn’t over-reacted.
Which is what makes the expected call for a radical rethink of our approach to drugs from the Global Commission on Drug Policy so remarkable. For these aren’t Lib Dem activists we’re talking about. The commission is made up of a clutch of South and Central American former Presidents, a former US Secretary of State, a former European Union High Representative, a former UN Secretary General and a former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Even the publicity shy Richard Branson has been persuaded to get involved.
Now I don’t claim to know what the answers to the problems of drug abuse and addiction are, and I’d need a lot of persuading before endorsing a policy of blanket decriminalisation. But I do know the current approach has been a disaster, even on its own terms; that the effort to stem the flow of drugs from the developing to the developed world costs billions and kills tens of thousands each year; that it occasionally diverts or delays supply, but fails totally to stem demand; and that the main effect of prohibition here in the West is to make drug addiction more dangerous and costly, for users, their families and the wider community.
So it can only be a good thing that these senior statesmen have decided to address an issue we in the UK still refuse properly to discuss. They say they want to initiate “an informed, science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies”. Good. As the Economist put it a couple of years ago, the 100-year struggle to create a drug-free world has been “illiberal, murderous and pointless“. The one thing we cannot afford is to go on pretending it is working.
* Julian Astle writes about politics and public policy. He previously worked as director of CentreForum, the liberal think tank, and as Political Advisor to Paddy Ashdown when leader of the Liberal Democrats. He is @JulianAstle on Twitter.Republish